Can researchers improvise?
Research is a crucial element of design process for digital products and marketing communication. The tests help us obtain information on basis of which we can make key decisions regarding business and product design. Individual interviews and usability tests are one of the most common methods of quality research used in UX projects. The course of those tests can be controlled to a certain extent.
The course of those tests can be controlled to a certain extent. Sometimes the researcher has to improvise - but what does it really mean, can you learn it and is this skill an important element of research technique?
During in-depth interviews or usability tests a basic tool in the hands of a researcher is a meticulously prepared research scenario. The researcher relies on it in the dialogue with a respondent, but it is merely a guide on subjects which fall within the scope of the research. Often there are interviewees with whom one can get into a deeper contact only when they leave the scenario or change the sequence of questions. Sometimes it is also the case that during the research there might occur technical problems (it seems to be an inherent part of researcher’s work) which can successfully distort the contact with a respondent. The approach towards such unplanned situations is what distinguishes a seasoned researcher from a beginner. Those with a greater experience can improvise quite naturally – which means that they can effectively react to an unforseen situation, remaining in a deep contact with a respondent and still draw conclusions from an ongoing conversation at the same time.
Another element which helps us differentiate an experienced researcher is the way of conducting the interview. Facilitation of research is an extremely complicated task which requires high soft skills. Among them we can name a few. The first of them is the careful listening. It means that the person has to be here and now, fully focused on the respondent to actively observe both what the person is saying, but also how it’s being said. Expert researchers can listen carefully and draw conclusions at the same time. The inferences can be drawn on the subject of the research, communication style, the level of stress connected with the research itself or certain character traits of the respondent (e.g. level of openness). The second ability is to identify changes in the tone of voice of the respondent. It can help you accurately assess whether the views of the interviewee are concurrent with what they’re saying or whether they respond in a way to meet the expectations of the researcher. This is where the third skill of the high-level soft competence comes in handy, which is the reading of body language. The information obtained on the basis of physical posture of the interviewee can play a crucial role for conclusions resulting out of the research session – an example here might be the first contact with a tested product. A valid piece of information will be whether the respondent in this situation got closer to it (which can be a sign of interest) or folded back (which can be a sign of a negative first impression). Apart from body posture, we can also draw on mimic expression of a given person. In certain cases we can observe inconsistencies between declarations and respondent’s facial expression. These are the information which are highly crucial from the perspective of conclusions quality of a conducted research.
Thanks to the abovementioned skills the researcher can build a deeper relation with the respondent and formulate more precise conclusions from the interview. If the soft skills are so important for research execution, how can one hone them? There’s no better answer than practice. Of course, on relevant studies the knowledge of the method of conducting research is presented, yet there are no classes on the school agenda which will develop the soft skills. You can reach for literature, but the obtained knowledge has to be put into practice in real-life situations. So, are learning from our mistakes and conducting a great number of research sessions the only way? As it turns out, it doesn’t have to be so – this is where improvisers come to the rescue.
Improv means theatrical improvisation
Let us shift to a theatrical hall for a while. Let us imagine, dear reader, that you’re standing in front of an audience of one hundred people. In a second you’re about to give an hour-long performance, yet you still don’t know what the play’s going to be about or what role you’ll be playing. This is a situation faced on a daily basis by improvisers. They engage in a certain trend called the theatre of improvisation.
Improv (the theatre of improvisation) are fully improvised theatrical performances, often comic ones, created by several people at the same time. It sounds like an almost impossible task – and yet it works. Moreover, this type of theatre has been gaining popularity recently – even now you can watch such performances in a majority of bigger cities of Poland (in Improv Poland application you’ll check all the available performances in selected locations). However, this text is not about improvising on stage as much as it is about implementing the techniques of improvisation theatre in professional life.
How can improvisers help researchers?
Improvisers, often relying solely on the composition of their bodies or the first utterance of the partner can infer who they are on stage, what personality has their character and in what situation it is in. They are able to do it, because they practice the improvisation technique. It is based on honing of soft skills.
Just like seasoned researchers, improvisers also draw conclusions through careful listening regarding the person they’re talking with on stage. It is extremely crucial in this context to identify the intentions of the partner and changes in the tone of their voice, because it is what informs them about emotions and protagonists’ motivation. The last but not least important element for improviser is drawing conclusions from physical signals – meaning, the body language or facial expression of the protagonist on stage. These are the reasons why the trainings of improvisation techniques can significantly develop soft skills which don’t have to be used on stage but beyond.
This might explain why there are chapters on improv in the latest publications regarding research. In UX Research there are descriptions of simple improv exercises which can be carried out on their own with your own project team. The most effective way of exercising is under supervision of an experienced person, this is why we can observe a growing popularity of improvisation techniques workshops in the professional context, beyond the walls of theatre. In the United States the impro workshops are highly popular among great companies such as Apple, Disney or Google, but also among universities and research companies. Articles in magazines such as Forbes or Bloomberg are encouraging to apply improvisation techniques in business.
– Bartosz Jurkowski
Looking from this perspective we can observe certain similarities between improv stage and a research session. The researcher by closely listening to the utterance of the respondent and by noticing their tone of voice and body language can read who the respondent is and what is their personality.
Basing on this piece of information the researcher conforms with their interlocutor in order to communicate with them deeply and obtain the most reliable information regarding the subject of the research. In this context we can say that they partially use the same skills as an improviser on stage.
Workshops on theatrical improvisation technique
Of course, an in-depth interview or usability test are not improv scenes. The researcher doesn’t play a role, but rather adapts to a situation by understanding of their interlocutor, whereas both situations are similar because they both use similar skills. This is why during workshops on theatrical improvisation technique one can develop their soft skills and use them on everyday basis in the research practice. This explains the emergence of dedicated improv courses for researchers (examples are: one, two, three) and the presence of such workshops on conferences regarding UX all over the world (examples of lectures and workshops on improvisation questions in countries such as: Australia, the United States, France or Singapore).
In Poland they are also available – they are organised by institutions and theatres related to the theatrical improvisation. There are also training dedicated to the UX industry – for instance those which will take place during the next Element Talks conference.
To sum up, improvisation can help us hone our soft skills via exercising of such competence as careful listening, recognition of changes in the tone of voice or facial expression as well as reading body language. They are crucial for improvisers on stage, but they can also be freely applied to a professional life – for instance during in-depth or usability tests. This is why the trainings of improvisation techniques can be a good way for developing important skills in the researcher’s profession which influence the final shape of conclusions and recommendations arising out of the conducted research.
As it turns out, the improvisation techniques can be applied to yet another field of researcher’s work – compelling presentation of research results. This is what I’ll elaborate on in the second part of this article which will come out soon.
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Bartek Jurkowski - improviser and CX Manager associated with Klub Komediowy (Comedy Club). Previously worked at uselab agency and Deloitte Digital where he was a Senior Consultant. He ditched agency life and devoted himself to improv which he learnt at Warsaw Imporv School as well as in iO West theatre in Los Angeles and Second City theatre in Chicago.
Now Bartek conjoins his design experience with the scenic one – he improvises in Arnold S. Improv group and in projects of Klub Komediowy. He also runs impro workshops for companies. If he could reform Polish education, improvisation would have more hours than chemistry and geography classes altogether.